Vice President Joe Biden is so gaffe-prone and uninhibited that his lurching, caressing, hot mic-ignoring persona long ago helped shift his popular image from that of a serious politician to one who is the subject of satire.
But Tuesday's display in the nation's capitol raised the bar, and just might spell trouble for the vice president. Biden was swearing in the administration's new Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, at a ceremony in the Roosevelt Room. After going obviously but harmlessly off-script during remarks, Biden administered the oath to Carter and gave him the podium. Stepping back, Biden beckoned Carter's wife Stephanie to join him on stage.
When she did, Biden proceeded to place his hands on her shoulders and leaned in to whisper something.
Photos of the exchange went viral. Tweets were launched. The Daily Beast called it"tactile cuckolding." And, quietly but persistently, voices began to wonder if he'd gone too far.
The Washington Post's Nia-Malika Henderson called Biden "the world's most powerful close talker" and reminded readers of his whisper in the ear of Senator Chris Coons' daughter in January and a veritable nuzzle that he gave a female motorcycle rider in Ohio during the 2012 campaign. NPR, BuzzFeed, and New York all piled on with their own stories.
Betsy Rothstein's story at the conservative website the Daily Caller ran with the headline: "New SecDef Can't Even Defend His Wife From Joe Biden."
The conservative Washington Examiner dug up photos of what it termed "Biden's woman-touching habit," including one with the vice president's hands wrapped around Senator Mitch McConnell's granddaughter's face as he kissed her head in January, and another from a 2013 holiday party showing him grabbing The Hill's Senior White House Correspondent, Aime Parnes, from behind.
Breitbart.com struck not just at Biden, but at what it saw as a greater level of media hypocrisy that protects him.
"Rest assured that Joe Biden remains protected by the impenetrable partisan 'D' shield and will never suffer anything more than a bit of light mockery or mild frowning for actions that would immediately vaporize the career of a Republican," wrote John Hayward. "If Biden were a Republican, we’d already be swamped with op-eds and Sunday-show passion plays about how his creepy behavior around younger women... were symptoms of deep problems within his Party."
While such criticisms may be standard fare at Breitbart, the same sentiment has snaked its way to the mainstream left, too. At Talking Points Memo, Alana Levinson, a self-described "a 20-year-old-liberal during the 2008 election" who was "excited" by Biden's straight-talking reputation, asked why liberals give the vice president a pass.
She gave some token explanation, such as Biden's pro-choice stance, his introduction of the Violence Against Women Act, and the lack of more serious accusations on the subject. (Frankly, the media also finds his unpredictable behavior relieving in a town defined by prepared statements and focus-grouped stances.) Ultimately, however, Levinson also concludes that she'd come down on him far harder if we were a Republican.
"Being an ally to women is about more than just positions or legislation," she writes. "The kind of sexism that Biden exhibits is perhaps the most pernicious kind, because it’s so easily waved away. It’s the classic definition of sexual harassment, the kind that most women tolerate on a daily basis from coworkers or friends.... [I]t’s wrong for a man to decide what makes women uncomfortable. But besides that, being a public figure who supports women means more than just supporting political causes. It also means treating them with respect, especially in public."
Can Biden really continue just being Biden with some of the most prominent political media calling him creepy, and inappropriate? It's certainly hard to imagine that—as he heads to the key primary state of South Carolina amid his own exploration for a run at the White House—he could escape the political consequences of his actions.
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